A Harvest of Bones

A Harvest of Bones
Original Edition: Berkley Prime Crime, December 2005
Second Edition: Nightqueen Enterprises, LLC, November 2016

It's harvest time in Chiqetaw, Washington; Emerald O'Brien's favorite season. But this year, nature yields a most supernatural bounty. When Em and her sweetie, Joe, stumble over a bramble-covered foundation that has remained hidden for fifty years in the lot next door, strange events begin to occur. The cat vanishes. Will o' the Wisps threaten to harm Emerald and her loved ones. And the ghost of a woman named Brigit and her beloved calico make themselves at home in the backyard. Now it's up to Em and her friends to delve into the past, reveal the secrets of the dead and lay them to rest as they ring in the autumn with a harvest of bones.

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Chapter 1

From Brigit's Journal:

The house is remarkably big, and there are so many things to remember. I hope I do well. Mr. Edward rather frightens me, though the Missus is nice enough.

I didn't know school would be so expensive; they were very firm on that account-they don't accept charity cases and I've no resources or family to whom I can turn.

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My only hope is to save up enough money to try again. I'm disappointed, of course, but at least this situation is better than starving. It won't be so bad. The time will pass quickly, and I'm used to the work-I've never been spoiled or without chores to do. And I'm sure that in a couple of years, I'll be able to carry out my original plans. I just have to bide my time, mind my manners, and do what is expected of me until then. At least they let me have a cat-bless them for that. My Mab is such a darling, and she'll be good company for me when I need to talk about my troubles. I learned long ago, best to turn to animals for that, they can't tell yours secrets. Even a diary isn't safe from prying eyes. But a cat will listen, and keep her silence for you.

* * *

"JEEZUZ!" AN ARGIOPE darted across my hand, off the branch I was holding. A second later, both tree limb and spider went flying. The striped orb weavers had grown fat on the last of the autumn insects; now their webs stretched in a parade through the tangle of brambles, silken strands shimmering under the feeble sunlight glinting through the buildup of clouds.

As long as they stayed where they belonged I could handle them, but we'd invaded their territory, put them on high alert, leading to more than one scare when I pulled a vine out of the way here or moved a branch there. Still, despite the thorns and arachnids and chilled sweat running down my forehead, I was having fun.

I still couldn't believe it. To my delight, Joe had actually gone and bought the lot next door to my house. Even though it resulted in weed-whacking duty for me, I was happy. When he began making noises about making things between us permanent I'd been nervous at first, not because I didn't love him, but because I'd been burned in the past-bad. But he was proving himself through his actions, and that was worth far more than a bunch of empty promises.

The early autumn had been mild with an Indian summer, but October came roaring in with a vengeance. A windstorm whipped through Chiqetaw, bringing with it gusts of sixty-five miles per hour, and rain had pounded down for days. All of western Washington was on flood watch-not unusual for this time of year, but still nerve-racking. Jimbo fretted because Goldbar Creek had crested a foot over height, flooding the back part of his woods where we'd found his friend Scar's body, and Harlow fussed about having to drive the long way into town in order to avoid a washout on the shortcut she and James usually took.

About halfway through the month, though, we finally hit a clear spot and the meteorologist promised us dry weather-give or take a few showers-just in time for my birthday, which was on Halloween. Considering that he worked at KLIK-TV, I had my doubts about the accuracy of the forecast, but hey, I could dream, couldn't I?

So when Joe suggested I take a week off to help him clear out his new property, I decided, why not? He needed the help and I needed a break. I'd just finished a grueling three-day stint at the store, catering to the Washington Tea Tasters Society during their annual conference. The event left the Chintz 'n China spotty on inventory, but with a tidy profit. So I placed enough orders for the holiday season, told Cinnamon the store was hers for the week, and promised to drop in every day or so to make sure things were running smoothly.

I stood back and took a deep breath, surveying the inroads we'd made on the mountains of blackberries. It had taken almost all day, but Joe and I'd managed to clear out the longest brambles, fighting our way through thorn and thistle. They were so thick and tall in places that we ended up pruning away at the ends until we could get close enough to clip the vines off at the ground. Then came the chore of digging them out, trying to get as many of the suckers as possible, along with the main root stem. I'd already punctured myself in a dozen places even though I was wearing heavy gardening gloves. At least I'd been smart enough to wear jeans and high-top boots, or my legs would be a bloody mess by now.

I stood back and stretched my neck to the right, wincing as the vertebrae popped. In just two months, the yoga classes I'd been taking had made a tremendous difference in my flexibility, but my body was still rebelling. I wasn't giving in, though. I'd been feeling on top of the world lately, fitting into clothes I'd tucked away three years ago, and I could make it through an afternoon of physical labor without getting winded now. Maybe one of these days I'd get a chance to really unleash my inner Lara Croft.

Joe pulled off his bandana and mopped his forehead. The thermometer read fifty-six degrees, but we were both sweating. "That's the third batch, and we aren't even halfway done," he said, gazing over the weed-strewn lot.

We'd carted away three loads of thorny blackberries.

Surrounded by thick, chest-high weeds, the lot buttressed up against my yard on the fourth, separated by a tall fence over which the brambles tenaciously crept. We discovered a driveway parallel to my own when we started cutting back the weeds, giving us the impression that perhaps a house had once stood on this lot. A few scrub trees dotted the yard, rising out of the brambles and weeds. Near the back, a tall yew-gnarled and knotted-towered out of the jungle, watching over the neighborhood, stark and solemn.

I calculated the amount of foliage left to clear before we'd be able to see the entirety of the lot. "I'm estimating at least another full day's work ahead of us," I said. "Then you can bring in a rototiller and dig up the roots."

"Sorry you agreed to help?" Joe asked, a grin on his face.

I planted a kiss on his cheek. "Nope, I may not like the spiders or the thorns, but I needed this break. Besides, this way, I won't have to hire somebody to cut these damned brambles back next year. They've been trying to creep over the fence ever since I moved in."

"I just thought that, you put in such a hard week, you might be regretting all the work this is turning out to be." He knelt down in the dirt near the leading edge of the remaining blackberries and dug away at the rich loam. "Hey, look at this. What do you suppose it is?"

I cautiously picked my way through the thorny stubble and squatted beside him. He was staring at what looked like a layer of bricks jutting out from beneath the front line of the bramble brigade.

"I don't know." The bricks continued beneath the brambles and I used a stick to pry away the vines. "Patio, maybe? Maybe we were right-maybe there was a house under all this mess. Whatever it is, it seems to go back a ways. Why don't we hack off another two or three feet of berries to get a better look?"

He picked up the machete he was using and started whacking at the vines while I gathered them up and tossed them aside. After a few minutes, more of the brick became visible. As we cleared another few feet, I began to realize that what we thought was a patio actually led to a large brick-lined hole in the ground. The afternoon light was waning, and it was difficult to tell just how big the chamber was.

Joe lay down on his stomach and stuck his head over the edge. "Hand me the flashlight."

I sorted through the tools until I found the high-beam light. I placed it in his hand and he shone it down into the inky void and scooted forward a bit. Worried that he'd scoot himself right over the edge and plunge to whatever might be waiting below, I knelt beside him and planted a hand on his butt, holding onto his belt.

He glanced over his shoulder with an evil grin. "Want to take a break?"

I smacked his ass. "Yes, but not right now. Get your nose back in there and tell me what you see."

"Yes'm." He peered back into the hole and flicked the light from side to side. After a moment, he rolled back up again, looking confused. "That's a pretty big hole down there. Basement, maybe?" He shrugged. "Do you know if there was a house on this lot? When I bought it, the lawyer didn't mention anything about one. He just told me that Mrs. Finch said go ahead and start work on it whenever I wanted, because she didn't have any use for it."

Irena Finch, nee Irena Brunswick. One of the town's economic mavens. She ran in the same circle as Harlow, but she had old money. Once in a while, she showed up in my shop. I had a suspicion she belonged to the smelling-salts crowd-those women who used fainting as a form of manipulation, and who practiced the art of the guilt-trip with as much finesse as Trump practiced the art of the deal.

I frowned. I'd lived here going on three years, but had never heard anything relating to a house on the corner. "I have no idea. Until we uncovered the driveway, I thought it was just an empty lot that had never been used. I've never had any reason to ask. What did you see?"

He shrugged. "Hard to tell. The brambles are still covering most of it. They've draped down over the sides, and it looks like the longer vines grew over the top until they formed a canopy. Whatever the case, this has been covered up for a long, long time."

Curious, I jerked my thumb, motioning for him to move over. "I want a look."

He handed me the flashlight and I stretched out, poking my head over the edge. The next thing I knew, Joe had grabbed a firm hold onto my legs. Probably a good idea, considering my track record. In the past year, my skirmishes into mayhem and murder had landed me in the hospital twice. Though, to be fair to myself, during my last adventure, it had been Joe who'd ended up in a cast.

As I flickered the light around, I began to get a feeling for the immensity of the brick-lined lair. Joe was right. It looked like a basement, and I was pretty sure I caught a glimpse of a staircase descending from the other side, but any access-if it was a set of stairs-was still obscured by brambles. I caught my breath as the scent of bonfires and decay and mold settled into my lungs. A chill raced along my spine and I suddenly longed to be in my house, warm in front of the fireplace. I scooted forward as a sound caught my attention.

"What is it?" Joe asked.

"Shush. Let me listen."

I closed my eyes and reached out with all of my senses, listening to the creeping tendrils and soft fall of soil where we'd dislodged the roots near the edge. There-a movement of the wind through the leaves, something shuffling through the foliage? A small animal stalking its prey through the bushes?

Perhaps. Then, a lone caw of a crow echoed and once again, a sound that didn't belong. Soft and low, like a woman sobbing. As I tried to pinpoint where it was coming from, a cold gust of wind shot through the tangle and slapped me in the face. A single shriek echoed in my ears, and then, all was silent.

"What the hell?" Shaken, I rolled away from the edge. I stumbled to my feet. Joe was staring at me, a bewildered look on his face.

"What happened?" He slipped an arm around my waist. "Are you okay?"

I tried to gather my wits. "Didn't you hear that? The scream?"

He shook his head. "No, I didn't hear a thing."

"But it was so loud that my ears are still ringing." How could he have missed it? Unless it had been my imagination.

"Em, honey, I didn't hear a thing except you grunting. There couldn't be anybody down there. Look, there's no way we can even think of getting into that hole without tearing ourselves to shreds on the thorns. Maybe you're just tired."

I muttered something and stared at the brambles. I was sure I heard something, but if it was as loud as it sounded, surely Joe would have heard it, too. "Well, maybe so. But I have a nasty feeling about it, and I want to go home. Now. I need a hot shower and some light."

Quizzically, he turned back to the basement of bricks, then wrapped his arms around me. "Hon, it's just the foundation of an old house. There's nobody down there. We have to clear out the brambles at some point. Don't get upset, please. With all the storms and stress, everybody's been on edge lately."

I took a deep breath. "You're probably right, but I could have sworn I heard someone scream, Joe."

"I know, I know."

"We'd better rope this off so nobody goes tripping in and breaks their neck," I said.

As Joe and I strung a rope around the area, tying it to several bushes, he glanced at the sky. "Come on, time to get inside. The light's almost gone and the temperature's dropping. The weatherman's wrong, there's another storm on the horizon."

I didn't have the heart to tell him I had the feeling that the storm had already broken and was bringing with it more than a downpour of autumn rain. In silence, we gathered up our tools and placed them under the tarp. I took one last look at the sky as we headed back to the house. All Hallows Eve was on the way, all right. I could feel it in the air.

* * *

I'M EMERALD O'BRIEN, the owner of the Chintz 'n China Tea Room, and I'm also the town witch. I gave up fighting the title long ago, because it fits, and the majority of folks in Chiqetaw use it as an endearment rather than a putdown. My two children are my life's hope and joy. Miranda's a fourteen-year-old genius who wants to go race around the stars someday, and Kipling-or Kip, as we call him-is my nine-year-old son who's forever getting himself into one scrape or another. He's a good kid, but I swear, half the silver hairs on my head are thanks to him.

Chiqetaw is a small town east of Bellingham, Washington, tucked away off Highway 9. My best friend Murray convinced me to pack my family up and move here after I divorced my ex-a nasty affair that left a deep, abiding desire for revenge in my heart. But ever since I fell in love with Joe, who's hunky and buff in every sense of the word, and who has a heart as big as his biceps, I don't give a rat's ass what Roy does. As long as he treats his children right, a task he's never proven good at, he could turn into a drag queen and head for Las Vegas, for all I care.

All in all, Chiqetaw has been good for us, even though it's proven a test to my sanity at times. About a year ago the universe took it upon itself to plant a cosmic badge on my chest and, like it or not, I found myself drafted. Whether moving to Chiqetaw was the catalyst, or I moved here because of some predetermined destiny, I don't know, but the area turned out to be a psychic powerhouse, and it swept me up in its vortex.

In the past year I've faced down astral beasties, mortal murders, monsters out of myth and legend, and broken an ancient Chinese curse. Half the time, I feel like I've been dumped into a movie produced by some maniac Holly-wood director. Think Lara Croft, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Jessica Fletcher, all rolled into one.

Trouble is, I don't fit any of the uniforms. Emerald O'Brien, thirty-six-all right, almost thirty-seven-year-old tea shop owner and tarot reader. Nope, just doesn't track with the same pizzazz. Kick butt? Highly doubtful, considering my couch-potato past and my never-ending sweet tooth. Invincible heroine by birth? Not really. I've learned the hard way that my psychic powers don't imbue me with any mystical invulnerability. Detective extraordinaire? Not once have I ever expressed the desire to be a famous sleuth.

All the same, the universe handed me the role of karmic facilitator and if there's one thing I've learned over the years, it's that we can't escape our fate. I tried and failed. So now when the universe delivers a dossier to my doorstep, I take a deep breath, clench my teeth, and accept the mission.

* * *

SINCE IT WAS Friday, the kids were still at school when we tromped through the backyard to my brand-new porch. Joe, along with my best friend Murray and her boyfriend Jimbo, spent the second week in September building a small enclosed porch onto the back of the house, so now we had a place to remove our muddy shoes and overcoats before entering my far-from-spotless kitchen.

I flopped down on the bench and pulled off my sneakers, setting them on the shoe-stand. As I slipped out of my windbreaker and hung it on a hook, I had the oddest feeling that someone was watching me. I glanced over my shoulder but nobody was there. Must just be the day, I thought.

"Come on, time to get washed up. Horvald's coming to dinner tonight and we're not feeding him spaghetti." I slipped through the door. Joe followed.

Joe was actually a better cook than I was. Or rather, he enjoyed it more. At first that bothered me, but pretty soon I realized what a find he was, and so when it came to company or special dinners, I let him take charge in the kitchen, contenting myself with the job of assistant.

He laughed. "No spaghetti-but first, come here."

As I looked up into his eyes, I felt myself falling again. Falling into his gaze, into his arms, into what had quickly become a deep and dangerous love. Dangerous because I hated showing any sign of vulnerability, dangerous because if something happened, this one would hurt in a way that I hadn't felt since Roy and I broke up.

He pulled me to him and planted a long, leisurely kiss on my lips. "Let's get washed up, woman!" he said, and grabbed me by the hand. We hustled upstairs to the bedroom.

"Do you have a clean shirt?" I asked.

He pulled one out of the drawer I'd cleared for him in my dresser. "Yeah, I replenished my stash yesterday. So, you want to hit the shower first? I've got to call the station and make sure everything's running smoothly."

As I stood under the steaming water, scrubbing away the dirt, my thoughts kept slipping back to the hole in the ground. Joe was probably right, it had to be the foundation or basement from an old house. Whatever it was, I didn't like the energy. I had the oddest sensation that we'd awakened something when we exposed it to the light. Even under the pulsing hot water, a line of goose bumps rippled across my arm.

I toweled off, then wrapped myself in my terrycloth bathrobe before padding back to the bedroom. Joe was flipping through one of my Time for Tea magazines. He hastily tossed it on the bed when I came in.

I grinned. "Thinking of going into competition with me, Files?"

He snorted. "Just trying to get some ideas for a birthday present."

"Aha! Caught you. Try perfume, jewelry, maybe a gift certificate for a spa day." I'd been learning to enjoy little luxuries rather than focus on the practical all the time. "Everything okay at the station?"

He nodded, looking satisfied. "Yeah, Roger's on top of stuff as usual. So far, it's been a dead shift-which is just fine with me. Means nobody's in trouble." Joe was the captain of Chiqetaw's medical rescue unit. Ultimately, he was responsible for all of the EMTs, and they couldn't have chosen a more conscientious leader. The men's safety came first and, even on his days off, he never let a shift go by without checking in.

As he stripped off his clothes I caught my breath, once again aware of how beautiful he was-my own Norse god come to sweep me away. He caught me looking and winked. Blushing, I shrugged, and he grabbed a fresh towel and headed into the shower.

I slipped onto the bench at my vanity. I'd cultivated a beauty ritual over the years, a daily pampering except on my grungiest of days when I was too tired to care. Opium dusting powder under my breasts, on my inner elbows, behind my knees. Matching lotion on arms and legs. Then deodorant, face cream, and finally, a spritz of Opium eau de toilette.

I examined my closet. What to wear on a cool autumn evening? With the changing season, I'd revamped my wardrobe. Maybe my relationship with Joe had rekindled my interest in clothing, or maybe Harlow had won and I'd turned into a girly girl, but whatever the cause, I'd begged her to go shopping with me.

She'd jumped at the chance. She was suffering from new-mother claustrophobia, and since her nanny was more reliable than Old Faithful, we spent an entire afternoon haunting the shops in Bellingham, heating up my credit card on calf-length rayon skirts and camisoles and crisp linen shirts. I'd even bought a new pair of suede knee-high boots that looked great with just about everything.

I slipped on my favorite bra and panties, shimmied into a flowing plum skirt and matching V-neck sweater, then hooked my gold chain belt around my newly resculpted waist. Yep, yoga had been good to me. I'd never be stick thin-wasn't built for it and didn't want to be. But at least I could fasten my jeans without sucking in my gut.

"I'm headed downstairs," I called into the bathroom, and Joe let out a garbled "okay."

I reached the foyer just as the front door opened and a gust of wind blew Kip and Miranda through the door. As I looked at them, I couldn't help but think about how fast they were growing up. This year, after-school activities ate up their early evenings and neither one made it home till close to six most weeknights.

Miranda was tutoring others in science and math, while being tutored in English. Kip had computer club, and he'd just started gymnastics, for which he showed a surprising aptitude. Since I was usually at the shop until six, I'd taken comfort in the fact that they were being supervised while I was at work. Miranda might be fourteen, but I'd learned the hard way that even a small, friendly town like Chiqetaw held more than its fair share of dark secrets.

"Mom! Hey, you look pretty tonight. What's the occasion?" Randa grinned at me as she dropped her backpack on the bench in the foyer and shrugged out of her coat.

I waited until they were both sans jackets and motioned them over for a hug. I managed to get in a quick peck on the cheek before they slipped away, out from under my wing. Yeah, they were growing up all right.

"How was school? Cause any trouble today?"

Randa rolled her eyes. "Come on, Mom, you've asked that every day since we started school this year. It's getting old."

"I stand corrected, but I still want an answer. What did you two do today?" I nodded toward the hall. "Come help me get dinner ready. Mr. Ledbetter's coming to dinner."

"Yay!" Kip said. He liked Horvald, who treated both of my kids like grandchildren. "What's for dinner?"

"Joe's grilling steaks on the porch."

They followed me into the kitchen, where Kip scrambled up on the counter and pulled the cookie jar down from the cupboard. I held up two fingers and he nodded, handing Miranda two cookies and taking two for himself. Then, because he knew me all too well, he handed me a couple of Oreos. I winked at him and he laughed and put the jar away.

Randa hopped on the counter, swinging her legs as she nibbled on a cookie. "I had to meet with Gunner again today. Why are you making me go? Mrs. García de Lopez says my grade is borderline. If I study, I can probably bring up it up on my own."

I tapped her knee. "No whining, Miss. You know perfectly well that, left on your own, you'd ignore it until it's too late. I know exactly what you think about the English language when it's not being used to describe a star system."

She sighed, but I saw the spark of a grin back there. I had her number and she knew it.

At the beginning of the school year, Randa had joined a brand-new program for gifted teens who went to the Chiqetaw Middle School. Within two weeks, my brilliant daughter had promptly nosedived in English, receiving a high D on the first two quizzes. Given her past performance, stellar except for English and P.E., where she'd always managed at least a C, her advisor called me. Mrs. García de Lopez suggested either letting her work it out on her own, or requesting a tutor before the problem got any worse.

Much to Randa's dismay, I'd chosen the latter. When she whined, I firmly reminded her that she'd gotten what she hoped for-more challenging schoolwork-and now that she belonged to an advanced group of students, she'd better get used to the extra effort. In all subjects, not just her favorites.

"How's Gunner working out, by the way? Is he any good?"

A flush raced up her cheeks and she ducked her head. "Yeah, though he could lighten up a bit," she mumbled. "He doesn't think anything matters except English. He's really talented. The teacher thinks he can make it as a writer."

Um hmm... the red face, the mumbling. My little girl was getting her first crush, though I wasn't about to say anything. Fourteen is a volatile age and I didn't want to embarrass her, especially in front of her brother, who would use juicy information like that to his best advantage.

I turned my attention to Kip, who launched into an explanation of the Trojan horse-he was learning Greek and Roman history this year. Half-listening, I pulled the steaks out of the fridge. Joe had placed them in a Ziploc bag, added port, ground black pepper, basil olive oil, and a little Worcestershire sauce earlier in the day, and set them to marinate. They smelled heavenly. A quick rummage through the cupboard uncovered a platter on which to arrange them after they finished grilling.

"Would you please start on the potatoes?" I asked Randa.

"How many?" she asked, without complaint. Randa had recently learned how to cook and had developed an unexpected liking for simpler tasks, especially considering how she'd kicked and screamed her way through home economics the first year.

"Enough to fill the red bowl. If you'll peel and dice them, I'll boil and mash. And then, if you would fix a salad, I'd appreciate it."

With a nod, she headed into the pantry as Joe popped into the kitchen. I winked at him. "Hurry up, Files. We're doing your work for you!"

Kip and Randa waved a friendly hello. Miranda accepted our relationship in stride. She liked Joe, and never complained about him hanging around. And Kip... Kip was overjoyed, what with having another man around the house to listen to him, throw a few balls, help with model cars. Joe won his heart when he'd challenged him at a few video games.

Joe managed to walk a fine line, never interfering with my parenting, but neither would he allow himself to be a doormat, for which I was grateful. I might have the last word with the kids, but they always treated him with respect.

While Joe and Kip grilled up the steaks, I mashed the potatoes and Randa put the finishing touches on the salad. The French bread was ready to go in the oven, and Joe would make a gravy out of the marinade. Horvald had promised to bring an apple pie from Davida's Choco-hol Bakery, so dessert was taken care of.

Promptly at seven, the doorbell rang and Horvald wandered in, pie in one hand, bouquet of mums in the other.

"The last from my garden," he said, holding out the flowers. The retired security guard had a thumb as green as my name, and kept me in freshly cut flowers all summer long. Horvald also kept an eye on us, which was comforting considering some of the mishaps we'd gone through. He was more like a grandpa than a neighbor.

Randa swept by, gracefully scooping the pie from his hands, and scurried into the kitchen. I snagged an empty vase from the living room and we followed her. As I arranged the flowers in the vase, Horvald sat back, watching.

"The four of you make quite the team, don't you?" He wasn't joking.

I glanced at Joe and Kip, who were carrying in the platter of steaks. The smell wafted ahead of them, convincing my stomach that, yes, food was on the way and the danger of starvation would be staved off for yet another day.

With a gentle nod, I returned Horvald's gaze and smiled. "Yeah, I guess we do." We gathered around the big old kitchen table where, for a moment, the only sound was that of stainless on china and the busy cutting of meat.

After we were all settled into our meal, I turned to Horvald. "How long are you going to be gone?" I asked. He and Ida-my babysitter extraordinaire and a fine retired schoolteacher-had become an item earlier in the year.

"Just for a few days. We'll be back in time for your birthday, though. Ida and I are driving down to the Salish Lodge & Spa at Snoqualmie Falls. We leave tomorrow morning, bright and early."

"Cool, we'll keep an eye on your houses for you," I said.

Joe suddenly set down his fork and turned to Horvald. "You've lived around here a long time, haven't you? You must have seen the changes that have gone on in this neighborhood."

"I've lived in Chiqetaw all my life," Horvald said. "Why?"

I immediately caught Joe's drift. "I suppose you've noticed that we're clearing out the lot next door. We haven't told many people yet, but Joe put money down on it a couple months ago and the owner said we could start in on it whenever we wanted. We're tearing out all the brambles so we can see what we have to work with."

"You thinking of putting a house there?" Horvald asked. I could sense he was brimming with questions.

Joe shrugged. "Maybe. The thing is, today we cleared out a patch in the middle of the lot and found what looks to be an old foundation. A basement of some sorts. And we found what looks like it might have been a driveway at one time. Do you know if there was ever a house on that lot?"

"Way cool!" Kip jumped up and started for the back door.

I caught him by the arm. "Just where do you think you're going, kiddo?"

He turned to look at me, his expression falling. "I guess I should've asked first, huh?"

"I guess you should have. Sit down and finish your dinner. I don't want you or Randa mucking about over there, especially after dark. You could fall in and hurt yourself. Capiche?"

After he gave me a muted "okay," I turned back to Horvald.

"So, was there a house? Something feels odd about the place." I didn't want to come out in front of the kids and say that I'd been spooked. Maybe Horvald could shed some light on the situation. Before he could answer, a crash of thunder broke through the sky and rain cascaded down in sheets. Yep, the KLIK-TV weatherman was just as effective as their star reporter, Cathy Sutton.

"So, you found the old Brunswick house? Or rather, what's left of it." Horvald mopped up the last of his gravy with a piece of French bread. He patted his stomach and politely covered his mouth as he burped. "Wonderful dinner. You know, I haven't thought about that family in years. It's a shame, everything that happened to them."

Randa and Kip leaned forward, all ears.

I glanced at them and cleared my throat. "No tragedies, I hope?" Irena Finch hadn't mentioned she ever lived on my street when she came to my shop.

He shook his head. "Not if you're talking lives lost, or anything like that. But the house... oh, she was a beauty. A mansion, three stories high, not including the basement. It towered over the other houses around here. I didn't live where I do now. In fact, your lot, my lot, everything down to the highway was woodland back then. The Brunswicks lived at the end of the road. Sixteen-nineteen Hyacinth Street. They were rich, and their son Brent was the captain of the high school football team. Irena Finch is his sister."

"Yes, she's the one selling me the lot. Or rather, her lawyer is. I've never met the woman myself. She inherited the land, I gather," Joe said.

"She married Thomas Finch, who comes from one of the oldest families in Chiqetaw. Real blueblood, you know," Horvald said, touching his nose. "Anyway, the Brunswick house burned to the ground."

"Wow," Kip said, captivated. "Did anybody die?"

I repressed a smile. My son, all right. Kipling the Morbid.

"Not that I know of," Horvald said, lowering his voice as he leaned toward Kip, whose eyes were growing wider by the minute. "But one Halloween night, a fork of lightning hit the house during a thunderstorm. The wood was dry and the rain wasn't strong enough to put out the flames. Nobody was home, and by the time the fire department got there, the blaze was totally out of control."

"Jeez," I said. "That's harsh. But at least nobody was hurt."

"No, but the fire destroyed everything they owned. They had insurance, of course, but it was still bad."

"When did it happen?" Joe asked.

Horvald squinted, thinking. "Oh, it had to have been back in 1955 or so. The Brunswicks decided not to rebuild. The twins were about twenty, I think. Brent had left for Europe about a month before the fire. I don't know whether he ever came back. Irena got married right around that time and I think Edward and Lauren Brunswick moved back to New York after their daughter's wedding. I'd forgotten all about that family until now." He turned to Joe. "So you really bought the lot?"

"Yep. I'm going to be your neighbor." Joe started clearing the table but I asked the kids to take over.

As Horvald headed for the living room, I rested one hand on his arm. "Are you sure you're telling me everything you know about the house?"

He gave me a strange look. "Why? Is something wrong?"

I glanced out the back window over at the darkened lot. Nothing was visible except the inkiness of the night and swirling leaves in the wind. "No, I guess not. No reason." But the sound of a woman crying stuck in my mind for the rest of the evening, and I couldn't shake the feeling that something was wrong, and that we'd awakened something better left asleep.

COLLAPSE
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